Captured, By Neil Cross

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The Independent Culture

On a junior-school trip to Glastonbury, Callie Barton held Kenny Drummond's hand, kindling a tongue-tied ardour he nurtured at a distance. In their final year Callie left, without explanation, leaving Kenny with his eccentric and depressive father Aled, a potter who riffed on Arthurian mythology and made loving sketches of his awkward son.

Three decades later, after a few creative jobs and a decade painting portraits in his remote cottage, Kenny is diagnosed with a malignant brain cancer. Refusing chemotherapy, he decides to use his final six weeks to "put things right" with four people he thinks he has let down. Two are so incidental to Neil Cross's story they all but constitute red herrings; another is the background presence of Kenny's ex-wife. Which leaves Callie. After a slow and somewhat sentimental start, Captured accelerates once Kenny gets on to her trail.

Captured is not, primarily, a mystery, but a novel of obsession. Callie married Reese, a landscape gardener in Bath; he mistreated her; she disappeared. Kenny stalks Reese, determined to extract a confession to her murder. The pressure of limited time to settle affairs may account for changes of behaviour, but Kenny's psychotic engagement with Reese defies credibility. At one point in his blood-soaked vendetta, Kenny ponders how a friend might react on learning "what kind of creature Kenny had become, in the name of pure love and dead days". This rings hollow.

The crucial flaw in the plot is that Cross has not laid any groundwork for "pure love" (or even sustained interest), so even life-threatening tumours fail to account for a sudden and surprisingly accomplished torture spree from a mild-mannered artist. The dislocation between gory episodes and Kenny's gentle provenance leave the reader more bewildered than gripped. Natural History, a previous domestic thriller, demonstrated the author's skill with taut plotting and a sharp twist; Captured has similar pace and narrative tension, but remains emotionally unconvincing.